California Struggles to Continue Prison Reform

April 22,2013

Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 10.29.20 AMCalifornia is being pushed toward furthering prison reform goals by a three judge panel that has just reaffirmed its 2009 order to reduce the prison population to 109,000 o 137.5% of prison capacity. As the result of a far reaching prison reform statute (AB109, passed in 2011), the prison population has been reduced by 23,000 inmates since October 2011. to 119,542 or 149.5% of capacity..

California Governor Jerry Brown (image on the left) has argued that California have complied with the court’s order; that California prisons are habitable and its health care system adequate. The court disagreed. On April 12, the three judge panel,U.S. District Judges Lawrence Karlton in Sacramento and Thelton Henderson in San Francisco and Stephen Reinhardt,  of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Los Angeles —  demand that the state reduce its prison population by another 9,500 inmates as per their previous order.The court threatened Brown and other government officials with contempt of court. The Court extended the original deadline for the reduction from June,  to December. Governor Brown promised to appeal the courts decision tot the U.S. Supreme Court.

California has been able to reduce its inmate population substantially by keeping low-level offenders in local jails instead of sending them to state prisons (and restricting the ability of parole or the courts to return them to prison). Progress toward meeting the cap has slowed, however, and officials have been reluctant to consider other ways to ease crowding. on the ground that further steps to free up space in prisons would “unnecessarily jeopardize public safety”( Los Angeles Times)..

The judges disagreed. “Releasing comparatively low-risk inmates somewhat earlier than they would otherwise have been released has no adverse effects on public safety. The state could meet the year-end deadline by transferring elderly and ill prisoners to community-based facilities, paroling some aging inmates who are serving terms of up to life in prison but pose little risk, and increasing sentence reductions for good behavior” (San Francisco Chronicle)

I believe that the court is correct. The  reduction in prison population by 9500 prisoners can be reached by releasing those who are infirm, aged, or deemed little risk to public safety. But that is just the beginning of our task. If Brown reduces California’s prison population to 109,000, the states’s prisons will still be 137.5% over capacity. California prisons need to reduce their populations below capacity. That will be a good start toward real prison reform in California, where only the serious and dangerous offender is sent to state prison (for a brief analysis as to how this might be accomplished , see on this website: Longer is not necessarily Better)

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